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Affection Post by :goldenstar Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :April 2011 Read :2678

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One of the ways in which our fears have power to wound us most grievously is through our affections, and here we are confronted with a real and crucial difficulty. Are we to hold ourselves in, to check the impulses of affection, to use self-restraint, not multiply intimacies, not extend sympathies? One sees every now and then lives which have entwined themselves with every tendril of passion and love and companionship and service round some one personality, and have then been bereaved, with the result that the whole life has been palsied and struck into desolation by the loss. I am thinking now of two instances which I have known; one was a wife, who was childless, and whose whole nature, every motive and every faculty, became centred upon her husband, a man most worthy of love. He died suddenly, and his wife lost everything at one blow; not only her lover and comrade, but every occupation as well which might have helped to distract her, because her whole life had been entirely devoted to her husband; and even the hours when he was absent from her had been given to doing anything and everything that might save him trouble or vexation. She lived on, though she would willingly have died at any moment, and the whole fabric of her life was shattered. Again, I think of a devoted daughter who had done the same office for an old and not very robust father. I heard her once say that the sorrow of her mother's death had been almost nullified for her by finding that she could do everything for and be everything to her father, whom she almost adored. She had refused an offer of marriage from a man whom she sincerely loved, that she might not leave her father, and she never even told her father of the incident, for fear that he might have felt that he had stood in the way of her happiness. When he died, she too found herself utterly desolate, without ties and without occupation, an elderly woman almost without friends or companions.

Ought one to feel that this kind of jealous absorption in a single individual affection is a mistake? It certainly brought both the wife and daughter an intense happiness, but in both cases the relation was so close and so intimate that it tended gradually to seclude them from all other relations. The husband and the father were both reserved and shy men, and desired no other companionship. One can see so easily how it all came about, and what the inevitable result was bound to be, and yet it would have been difficult at any point to say what could have been done. Of course these great absorbed emotions involve large risks; and it may be doubted whether life can be safely lived on these intensive lines. These are of course extreme instances, but there are many cases in the world, and especially in the case of women whose life is entirely built up on certain emotions like the love and care of children; and when that is so, a nature becomes liable to the sharpest incursions of fear. It is of little use arguing such cases theoretically, because, as the proverb says, as the land lies the water flows,--and love makes very light of all prudential considerations.

The difficulty does not arise with large and generous natures which give love prodigally in many directions, because if one such relation is broken by death, love can still exercise itself upon those that remain. It is the fierce and jealous sort of love that is so hard to deal with, a love that exults in solitariness of devotion, and cannot bear any intrusion of other relations.

Yet if one believes, as I for one believe, that the secret of the world is somehow hidden in love, and can be interpreted through love alone, then one must run the risks of love, and seek for strength to bear the inevitable suffering which love must bring.

But men and women are very differently made in this respect. Among innumerable minor differences, certain broad divisions are clear. Men, in the first place, both by training and temperament, are far less dependent upon affection than women. Career and occupation play a much larger part in their thoughts. If one could test and intercept the secret and unoccupied reveries of men, when the mind moves idly among the objects which most concern it, it would be found, I do not doubt, that men's minds occupy themselves much more about definite and tangible things--their work, their duties, their ambitions, their amusements--and centre little upon the thought of other people; an affection, an emotional relation, is much more of an incident than a settled preoccupation; and then with men there are two marked types, those who give and lavish affection freely, who are interested and attracted by others and wish to attach and secure close friends; and there are others who respond to advances, yet do not go in search of friendship, but only accept it when it comes; and the singular thing is that such natures, which are often cold and self-absorbed, have a power of kindling emotion in others which men of generous and eager feeling sometimes lack. It is strange that it should be so, but there is some psychological law at the back of it; and it is certainly true in my experience that the men who have been most eagerly sought in friendship have not as a rule been the most open-hearted and expansive natures. I suppose that a certain law of pursuit holds good, and that people of self- contained temperament, with a sort of baffling charm, who are critical and hard to please, excite a certain ambition in those who would claim their affection.

Women, I have no doubt, live far more in the thought of others, and desire their intention; they wish to arrive at mutual understanding and confidence, to explore personality, to pierce behind the surface, to establish a definite relation. Yet in the matter of relations with others, women are often, I believe, less sentimental, and even less tender-hearted than men, and they have a far swifter and truer intuition of character. Though the two sexes can never really understand each other's point of view, because no imagination can cross the gulf of fundamental difference, yet I am certain that women understand men far better than men understand women. The whole range of motives is strangely different, and men can never grasp the comparative unimportance with which women regard the question of occupation. Occupation is for men a definite and isolated part of life, a thing important and absorbing in itself, quite apart from any motives or reasons. To do something, to make something, to produce something--that desire is always there, whatever ebb and flow of emotions there may be; it is an end in itself with men, and with many women it is not so; for women mostly regard work as a necessity, but not an interesting necessity. In a woman's occupation, there is generally someone at the end of it, for whom and in connection with whom it is done. This is probably largely the result of training and tradition, and great changes are now going on in the direction of women finding occupations for themselves. But take the case of such a profession as teaching; it is quite possible for a man to be an effective and competent teacher, without feeling any particular interest in the temperaments of his pupils, except in so far as they react upon the work to be done. But a woman can hardly take this impersonal attitude; and this makes women both more and less effective, because human beings invariably prefer to be dealt with dispassionately; and this is as a rule more difficult for women; and thus in a complicated matter affecting conduct, a woman as a rule forms a sounder judgment on what has actually occurred than a man, and is perhaps more likely to take a severe view. The attitude of a Galileo is often a useful one for a teacher, because boys and girls ought in matters that concern themselves to learn how to govern themselves.

Thus in situations involving relation with others women are more liable to feel anxiety and the pressure of personal responsibility; and the question is to what extent this ought to be indulged, in what degree men and women ought to assume the direction of other lives, and whether it is wholesome for the director to allow a desire for personal dominance to be substituted for more spontaneous motives.

It very often happens that the temperaments which most claim help and support are actuated by the egotistical desire to find themselves interesting to others, while those who willingly assume the direction of other lives are attracted more by the sense of power than by genuine sympathy.

But it is clear that it is in the region of our affections that the greatest risks of all have to be run. By loving, we render ourselves liable to the darkest and heaviest fears. Yet here, I believe, we ought to have no doubt at all; and the man who says to himself, "I should like to bestow my affection on this person and on that, but I will keep it in restraint, because I am afraid of the suffering which it may entail,"--such a man, I say, is very far from the kingdom of God. Because love is the one quality which, if it reaches a certain height, can altogether despise and triumph over fear. When ambition and delight and energy fail, love can accompany us, with hope and confidence, to the dark gate; and thus it is the one thing about which we can hardly be mistaken. If love does not survive death, then life is built upon nothingness, and we may be glad to get away; but it is more likely that it is the only thing that does survive.

(The end)
Arthur C. Benson's essay: Affection

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